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June 28, 2011

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Where art ends and profit begins

WHEN a Chinese state museum hosts Louis Vuitton's biggest show since 1854, some people wonder whether China has gone a tiny bit too far in its lust for luxe. Michelle Zhang takes a look.

The ongoing "Louis Vuitton - Voyages" exhibition at the newly renovated National Museum of China in Beijing has ignited a controversy over whether a state museum should host such a large-scale commercial exhibition - or any commercial exhibition.

The glitzy showcase of hundreds of historical trunks and handbags is the biggest exhibition the French luxury fashion house has ever held since it was founded in 1854. It will run through August 30.

The show that opened May 31 marks the first time the museum has ever held an exhibit of a commercial brand. The Internet has been simmering with criticism over showcasing handbags as though they were ancient relics.

"Ridiculous. The country has such a long history and so many cultural relics to exhibit to visitors but now it lets a purely commercial brand enter and hold exhibitions," Zhang Tinghao, former director of the Chinese Cultural Heritage Research Institute, told the website "As a public service institution, the museum should shoulder the responsibility of guiding and educating its visitors," said Zhang.

The criticism has probably increased the number of visitors.

The exhibition, which covers four exhibition halls, features the brand's signature bespoke travel pieces and handbags, as well as its vast collaborations with fashion designers and artists over the years. These include the monogram Cherry Blossom bags designed by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and the Graffiti collections created by late American artist Stephen Sprouse.

One of the exhibition halls is dedicated to works by Chinese contemporary sculptor Zhan Wang. Zhan, who is known for his chrome re-interpretations of traditional Taihu Lake stones (or scholar's rocks), has created a large, highly textured rock-like piece coated in silver metal, titled "Initial."

Zhan also premieres excerpts from his new video art piece "My Universe," which centers on creation and destruction. Shot with a high-speed camera, it depicts the explosion of a giant, five-meter-long Taihu Lake stone from six different angles. The entirety of "My Universe," which will include the high-resolution video, documentaries and new sculpture installations, will be exhibited at Beijing's Ullens Center for Contemporary Art by the end of the year.

"The work depicts the process when a large rock is broken into thousands of small pieces - each in its raw shape, and each following its own voyage," Zhan explains.

Yves Carcelle, chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton, says the house's vast collaborations with artists have helped to express the brand's creativity and renew its image.

The LV "Voyages" exhibition is the latest in a series of luxury/art partnerships in China over the past few years. It also reflects a trend in the country for luxury houses to use museums, art galleries and film festivals to promote their brands to attract more sophisticated and well-educated consumers.

Christian Dior launched a multimedia exhibition in Shanghai's Plaza 66 in mid-May, showing off its Lady Dior handbags. Alfred Dunhill opened a "Modern Craftsmanship" exhibition in its Shanghai flagship store last week, displaying art works by four contemporary designers.

Earlier this year, American designer Diane von Furstenberg launched "Journey of a Dress," a retrospective of her life and career, in Beijing's Pace Gallery. The inventor of the legendary "wrap dress" has invited famed Chinese artists Zhang Huan, Li Songsong, Hai Bo and Zhou Yi to create art pieces based on her image.

"It is an honor to engage with China's art community," said von Furstenberg in a previous interview. "China is a major part of our future, and its art is already some of the most exciting being made worldwide."

"The collaboration between Chinese artists and luxury brands can turn out to be a win-win game," comments a local art critic who declined to be identified.

High-quality art collaborations help fashion houses show their taste, while developing and maintaining an upscale brand image; at the same time, artists also need fashion exposure to establish their names, the critic observes.

The power of marketing by fashion houses may turn an artist's name into a brand itself.

It is also very important for fashion brands to choose the right artists to work with. The critic said Louis Vuitton and Zhan Wang are a good match because Zhan's works are often "clearly shaped and filled with power, which represent Louis Vuitton's brand image very well."

Renowned Chinese artist Liu Jianhua believes that the collaborations with fashion brands will also help arouse general public's interests in arts.

Shanghai-based Liu has worked with Christian Dior three times, in 2008, 2010 and this year. Dior commissioned him to create massive porcelain art pieces for the French luxury house's "Dior and Chinese Artists" exhibition in Beijing in 2008 and "Lady Dior" exhibition in Shanghai last year. In May, he created a gilded porcelain Lady Dior bag for an exhibition at Plaza 66.

Liu emphasizes that it is important for artists to keep their independence in such collaborative projects.

He aptly blended the four letters of "Dior" into his works, and created Dior perfume bottles, handbags, dresses and shoes in fragile porcelain.

"There is nothing wrong with artists working with a fashion house, or even blending some key elements of the brand into their works," he says. "But at the same time, they have to keep in mind that the works have to express their own opinions, and reflect their own understanding of the brand, its culture and history, be it positive or not."


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